The Untold Story of Black Fatherhood

By Stacia L. Brown Nov 18, 2014

Thirty-five-year-old Tyrone Hopkins is like any number of black men I’ve known growing up in Baltimore. Sit down with him for a few minutes and he’ll talk to you like he’s known you forever. Everyone who lives in Baltimore says it’s like a big town, rather than a major urban city. "Smalltimore," residents sometimes call it, because you can’t go far without finding a link to someone you’ve never met–a shared acquaintance, a common experience or a neighborhood connection. It’s like that with Hopkins, too. Ask him something personal and, if he’s cool with you, he’ll be candid, funny and cordial–even if it’s a difficult topic to discuss, like the ups and downs of life as a single black father.

Hopkins is one of four men I spoke to about being an unmarried working-class dad in Baltimore City. We met in late October during one of the weekly parenting classes he attends at the Center for Urban Families, along with a couple dozen other black fathers. The class is part of the Baltimore Responsible Fatherhood Project, a four-month program that provides low-income black fathers with the help they need to show up for their families–stuff like job training, counseling and the support of other men like themselves.

Hopkins tells me he has two daughters, a 14-year-old and a 2-year-old. I ask about the intervening years between the two. Was there a difference in how he felt when he found out he’d be a father each time?

"Honestly? I was 20, 21," he says of his first daughter’s birth. He admits he discouraged his daughter’s mom from keeping their child. "It was more like an, ‘All right. So what we gon’ do about that?’ I mean, I didn’t want any kids. That was just my mindset at that time."

"What we gon’ do about that?" is a code that a good number of unmarried pregnant women understand. It ranks right up there with "Take care of that" in the Hoping for a Pregnancy Termination Handbook. It’s the kind of reaction that might cause the uninitiated to recoil. Many people believe expectant fathers should stick to a script that reads, Whatever you decide, future mother-of-my-child, I’ll support you. A man who expresses that he doesn’t want kids after he and his partner have conceived one tends to be considered a flight risk. We are conditioned to greet him with disdain, to quickly slot him into a familiar box: deadbeat.

But I just nod and let Hopkins finish. My own pregnancy wasn’t greeted with instant joy by my child’s father, either, and I get it. Through Beyond Baby Mamas, a community of single moms I founded in 2012, I’ve heard enough iterations of Tyrone’s first response to know it’s not always the final one. Initial reactions to the news of unplanned pregnancies don’t necessarily predict post-birth attitudes.

"It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was, after she came," Hopkins explains.

He met the mother of his first daughter in high school. He says they’re best friends and their daughter together has always been a "daddy’s girl." With Tyrone’s second co-parent, however, the road has been rockier. "I had missed [my second daughter’s] first birthday by maybe three weeks when I found out about her." The news came through a child support notice. "It just threw me right into the mix. I didn’t even have a chance to feel anything about it."

Tyrone, who works as a truck driver, has been participating in the Baltimore Responsible Fatherhood Program since July 2014. He credits the program with helping him acclimate to second-time fatherhood and manage his relationship with his second child’s mom productively. "Only because of me coming here to the Center, we speak more and actually interact now. It got a lot better."

Tyrone’s story isn’t one we often hear in national discourse about unmarried black fathers. Though neither of his partners’ pregnancies were planned and the circumstances surrounding them were not ideal, he didn’t shirk his co-parenting responsibilities. In this, Tyrone is just one of many black unmarried dads whose story of consistent, if complicated involvement with his children is overshadowed by sensationalized media coverage about an "epidemic of fatherlessness" in the black community. (Photo below: Tyrone Hopkins)

lifecycles_fatherhood_hopkins.jpgIn 2011, Pew Research Center found that 72 percent of black children were born to unwed parents. A 2013 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report corroborated that the percentage held more or less steady in 2012. The studies prompted a chorus of worried commentary. Everyone from CNN anchor Don Lemon to Oprah Winfrey and Iyanla Vanzant have engaged in public handwringing over the report. There’s even a documentary called "72 Percent," which refers to black single parenthood as "catastrophic" and a "crisis," while focusing primarily on households in which a biological father is entirely absent.

But there’s a problem with all of this worry about that 72 percent statistic: It’s rooted in the assumption that all black children born to unmarried mothers are fatherless. This assumption ignores a centuries-old tradition of communal parenting in black families. But more to the point, it erases the involvement of non-custodial black fathers–fathers like Tyrone Hopkins and his peers at the Baltimore Responsible Fatherhood Project.

I ask Tyrone if he’s ever felt stereotyped or misrepresented as an unwed dad. "They think we all just jump in and then jump out, that we don’t take care of anything, that we just knock ’em up and roll out. And that’s not the truth," he says, pointing to the men with whom he spent the past four months. "We were 30 guys deep and I was amazed there were so many dudes from outside that came in here, because we wanted to make a difference in our children’s lives. I thought it was just me."

It isn’t. Another, less publicized CDC report in 2013 found that black fathers spend more time with their children than white and Latino fathers, even in cases where they live in separate residences. Of the 1,298 non-coresidential fathers surveyed, black dads consistently reported higher involvement with tasks like bathing and feeding their children, as well as helping them with their homework.

"One misconception that people have about black fathers is that they don’t want to be involved or that they’re deadbeat," says Vernon Wallace, who manages the Baltimore Responsible Fatherhood Project. "More so, they’re just dead broke."

Wallace, a 35-year-old husband and father, takes pride in his post and in the men he serves. Clad in a suit and tie, on both occasions that I spoke with him, Wallace also insists on referring to the fathers in his program and everyone he encounters on the job by formal titles like Mr. and Ms. It’s part of an intentional demonstration of respect–for everyone’s unique stories, challenges and backgrounds–that he espouses.

He directs me to 26-year-old Warren Hill, father to a 5-year-old daughter, for proof that living in a separate residence does not an absentee father make. Warren volunteers at his daughter’s school, attending PTA meetings and helping his daughter with her school work. "Fatherhood goes far beyond being responsible," Warren tells me. "My definition now is consistency and persistency. I want my daughter to have more than I had."

Hill is completing an art project displayed as a work-in-progress at the Center for Urban Families, where the fatherhood program is based. The work features three murals, one on each side of a triangle display. One side, already completed, is titled, "I Was…" It depicts a man climbing up from a morass full of labels: drugs, the ‘hood, finances and stereotypes. The second side is a sketch of man in a shirt and tie. It’s titled, "I Am…" He hadn’t begun work on the third side, "I Will Be…"

The odyssey between "I Was…" and "I Will Be…" is not often celebrated for single black fathers. Charles Mitchell, 26, grew up as a ward of the state, shuffled through the foster care system. When we sat down to talk about his experience as a father, he told me about his three children, aged 6 and under, and his three jobs at Marriott, Burger King and Popeye’s.

"At the time [I started attending parenting classes], I wasn’t even thinking about being a father. I was just going to run." It took two separate fatherhood support programs to get Mitchell accustomed to navigating the challenges of parenting. He credits the programs with providing him structure. "I’m not angry or mad [anymore]."(Photo below: Charles Mitchell)

lifecycles_fatherhood_mitchell.jpgBut Mitchell’s biggest challenge isn’t emotional; it’s one that is practically synonymous with the phrase "unmarried dads": child support.

Two days before my visit, a representative from the offices of Baltimore City Child Support had led the class through an informational workshop. I watch the class review what they learned. "What is child support?" one of the instructors asks the dads in attendance. "It’s taking care of your responsibility," one answers. "It’s a law," says another.

"And what happens when you don’t pay it?"

The answers come fast and sure. "You go to jail." "They take your license." "They garnish your wages."

I can’t help but cringe at these responses. In many states–including Maryland–the consequences each father has called out are true. But it’s misguided to think of child support solely in terms of what will happen if you don’t pay it. It’s also important to understand why child support as we know it was established in the first place. It exists because there’s a long historical precedent for its need.

While child support laws date back to 1910, it wasn’t until 1950 that federal regulation opened the door for a parent who deserted his family to be prosecuted. Family desertion was effectively criminalized. Over the next 40 years, penalties for family desertion grew to include wage garnishment, driver’s license revocation, and the imprisonment of parents in significant child support arrears, among other things.

Today, a majority of custodial parents with child support orders in place are receiving at least some of the money they’re owed. A 2011 Census report found that 42 percent of custodial mothers received all of their child support payments and 70.5 percent received some in 2009.

For single mothers, these payments are of critical importance. As the Working Poor Families Project reported back in February, 58 percent of woman-headed households were low-income in 2012–and as many as 65 percent of black woman-headed households. Though more than half of low-income single mothers work full-time, they’re often working in low-paying fields without benefits.

But even when low-income noncustodial fathers desperately want to mitigate some of the financial burden the mothers of their children face, they are often incapable of doing so. They share in the emotional strain and social stigma that single mothers living in poverty face–and it’s compounded by the threat of potential arrest for child support arrears. As Tonya L. Britto writes in the "Journal of Gender, Race and Justice," parents who live in poverty owe the vast majority of back-due child support and are more likely to be put in jail for failing to pay than are parents who have the means to do so.

"Child support itself isn’t the barrier, it’s lack of payment of child support that becomes the barrier," says Wallace. Unemployment among black men remains far above the national average. In Baltimore, 42.5 percent of working-age black men were out of the formal workforce in 2010. As Colorlines reported earlier in this series, criminal records are not the only force behind these statistics. One Baltimore-based research project found a massive disparity in both job opportunity and wages between black and white men who hadn’t graduated high school and who had criminal records. Wallace argues that child-support enforcement policies too often ignores these harsh economic realities. "Then when reality strikes and the [difficulty] of actually obtaining a job that will just pay you something just to get back in the labor force [becomes clear], it can be tough." (Photo below: Vernon Wallace)

lifecycles_fatherhood_wallace.jpgCharles Mitchell knows all about that. He tells me he’s lost his driver’s license and has also served jail time as the result of child support arrears. He believes the court system works against many fathers, even as they try to meet their financial obligations. "They don’t value you. They just value your money. It shouldn’t be that way. They think you should go out and be a robot that makes money and pays them. That’s not life."

Corde Cornish Jr., 23, also had money on his mind when I talked to him about his relationship with his 13-month-old son. "I used to think fatherhood was about being there and paying for everything, but now it’s more of an experience with him, and about knowing that I’ll be able to still pursue my goals and dreams, and help him fulfill his goals and dreams." He chuckles and adds, "By being there and paying for everything."

Wallace says the program’s goal is to get men to the place where Cornish has arrived. "Being financially supportive of your child doesn’t necessarily constitute you being a good father," he tells me. "You got guys who hustle, been out on the streets, trying to survive and they’ve got bread to peel off and say, ‘Take care of li’l Darren. Here goes money. I’m going back out here to work.’ Or some gentlemen are just workaholics. They’ve got a lot of jobs. But we want to make sure they understand that we want them to support their children not just economically, but emotionally."

I’m able to get each of the fathers I interview to smile simply by asking them what they like to do with their children for fun. I can tell that, after my battery of queries about stereotypes and challenges, it’s a question they aren’t expecting. Cornish cites watching his son pull up on furniture as he learns to walk as one of the most fun experiences he’s having as a new father. Hopkins admits he likes to start food fights with his daughters. Hill considers the recent day he took a trip to Port Discovery, a local children’s museum, with his 5-year-old to be one of the best of his life. "Being able to watch her in that setting, and to have her look back at me and know that I was there to see her have her fun and to jump in if anything went wrong, was a special feeling."

In the lobby of the Center for Urban Families, there’s a mosaic of a man and child on the walls, painstakingly created by fathers and their children. It symbolizes the journey black single fathers face: a slow gathering and arranging of pieces, the careful affixing of out-of-joint elements–finances, relationships, proximity to kids, employment–so that they settle just so. It’s also an important reminder to the rest of us that, with time, community support and societal empathy, bonds between black single fathers and their children can be as unconventionally beautiful as broken glass, gently reconfigured.